Popularity contest – twitter, influence, and universities
Twitter is big and universities are embracing twitter in a big way. From the University of Louisville barring athletes from using specific words on twitter, to Florida State University offering a course teaching students how to raise their Klout score using twitter, to professors encouraging twitter use to grow students’ writing abilities, twitter is changing the way higher education works.
For the most part, I think twitter is having a very positive influence on higher education. My grad school embraced twitter, with nearly every student service and department having a twitter account. If I wanted to voice a complaint about a library location closing at noon on Saturday, I could make my thoughts heard in a very direct and public manner.
Encouraging students to embrace twitter also teaches them the importance of cultivating an online presence and how to advertise their work and themselves in a digital age. In my undergrad degree I never heard the word twitter mentioned in by professors and while my grad school embraced the service, it never recommended that we should. Learning how best to use twitter was something I had to learn outside of the university.
But with all the good twitter brings, it carries a dangerous trend – the thought that twitter success corresponds with anything in the real world. Or simply, that ‘twitter success’ even exists.
Let me clarify what I mean. Let’s compare twitter to real-world social groups. Some people have more friends, some people have fewer. Some people have their stories repeated by others, some people don’t. It would be ridiculous to try to measure one’s standing in his or her social group, let alone to attempt to use this measure as an indication of their success in life.
While measuring one’s social success seems ludicrous in real life, it’s happening every day online.
Services like Klout promise to provide users with a way of measuring their online influence. Klout states its mission is to “empower every person by unlocking their influence.” They claim their “killer team of scientists” has found a way to distill your influence on a variety of social networks into a single, quantifiable score.
Sounds like snake-oil? It’s because it probably is. In a great article called “Klout, IQ and Reification – Why Trying to Measure Influence is Dangerous,” Jeff Turner writes:
“Like “intelligence”, Klout, is not a thing. And the thing it measures, influence, is not a thing. They are all just words with a very high degree of abastraction. “But if we believe it to be a thing, like the pancreas or liver, then we will believe scientific procedures can locate it and measure it.””
Scores are easy for people to understand. They make complex realities into a simple number, bringing order to a chaotic world. Many people accept Klout’s metrics as accurate reflections of individual’s social media success. Some companies are even looking at Klout scores as part of the hiring process, thus leading to the above-mentioned class at Florida State University teaching students how to game the Klout system.
A large follower to following ratio is often taken as a sign of twitter success, an indication of one’s online influence. Such a ratio is so desirable that many people are even willing to pay for it. Services like twiends.com and followmania.com promise to increase your followers overnight for a small fee. To learn more about these services, I signed up for a free Twiends account a few months ago. I wrote about my negative experience with the service here.
In a nutshell, twiends works as follows – by syncing your twitter account with their service you are given a profile on their own site as well as a number of ‘seeds’ (to use twiends’s parlance). When people follow your twitter account they receive a number of your seeds, thus depleting your total seeds and adding to theirs.
By default twiends gives you enough seeds to encourage 10 people to follow your account. Once you’ve run out, you must either follow the accounts of people with seeds or buy seeds with you own money. Twiends sells seed packages ranging from $29.95 (enough seeds for roughly 625 followers) to $299.95 (enough seeds for roughly 10,000 followers).
Buying 10,000 follows would give the illusion of twitter success and likely boost your Klout score. Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney recently drew fire when his twitter account grew by 150,000 followers in two days. This incident shows the emphasis placed on appearing to be influential on twitter – twitter influence is now a presidential quality.
While its possible to game the system, its also possible to find out who is inflating their numbers. Status People is a tool that examines twitter accounts and breaks followers into three categories: fake, inactive, and good. Once you give the app permission to examine your twitter account, it looks at a sampling of your followers (your last 1000 followers if you’re not very popular, your last 100,000 if you are) and discerns which of your followers have either been flagged as spammers or have made only one or two posts (a general indication of a spam or inactive account).
The service determined that my twitter account (@Ryan__Hunt [that's two underscores]) has 1% fake followers, 5% inactive, and 95% good. Once you’ve granted permission for the app to look at your account, you can use it to look at the accounts of others. Lady Gaga, the most popular account on twitter with more than 28 million followers, has 32% fake, 41% inactive, and 27% good followers. Barack Obama has 29% fake, 38% inactive, and 33% real followers. After looking at a number of popular celebrity twitter accounts, it appears that most celebrities have over-inflated follower lists.
This got me thinking, since so many universities are putting effort into creating a twitter presence, what percentage of their followers are real? I’ll now break down the accounts of several universities with strong twitter presences.
University of Oxford (45, 982 followers) – 10% fake, 30% inactive, 60% good
University of York (10,889 followers) – 3% fake, 21% inactive, 76% good
Johns Hopkins University (23,401 followers) – 6% fake, 23% inactive, 71% good
University of Victoria (2,318 followers) – 5% fake, 16% inactive, 79% good
Harvard University (145, 321 followers) – 8% fake, 36% inactive, 56% good
RMIT University (11, 982 followers) – 6% fake, 28% inactive, 66% good
From this extremely informal looking at the breakdown of different university twitter accounts it appears that most universities have fairly similar numbers, with larger accounts drawing slightly more fake followers. Unlike most celebrity twitter accounts, the followers of universities seem to be a somewhat accurate reflection of the number of people following the given university.
But ultimately the quantity of one’s followers doesn’t matter as much as the quality of interactions one has on twitter. Just because the majority of a university’s followers are real people doesn’t mean that those people are having meaningful interactions with the university. At the end of the day a good twitter account takes time and effort, two things which are not easily measured.
As twitter becomes a larger part of higher education, students, professors, and administrations will have to find a more meaningful way to evaluate one’s experience with twitter that goes beyond the simple (and deceitful) metrics offered by services like Klout. Numbers only tell a small part of the story.
What do you think about twitter’s role in higher education? Does Klout have any value, or is the number utter nonsense? What would be a better metric for evaluating one’s twitter experience? I’d love to hear what you think.
-Ryan Hunt (@Ryan__Hunt)